Students pose for a picture during the 2008 retreat.
(lubavitch.com) They are trading Harvard Square and College Hill for Eastern Parkway and Kingston Avenue. For an entire weekend, their course schedules and term papers will be relegated to the bottommost regions of their backpacks. Cafeteria food will be replaced by fine Shabbat dining, and Ipods will be out-sung by local bands and friendly sing-alongs. It is the annual International Student Shabbaton, and 800 of the world’s Jewish collegians will be there.
Every autumn, for the last three decades, university students leave dorm life behind for a weekend of Jewish exploration and companionship. This Friday night, November 6, 2009, representatives from 100 schools around the world will break challah together in the neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York.
“The weekend represents a chance for students, from schools large and small, to recognize that they are part of a broad social movement,” explains Rabbi Moshe Chaim Dubrowski, director of operations for Chabad on Campus.
Rabbi Yisroel Lew and several students are leaving Heathrow for JFK Thursday morning. Lew heads the Jewish Student Centre in central London, serving the London School of Economics, Kings College London, and a dozen smaller colleges. The Shabbaton, heavily subsidized by Mr. George Rohr and other Chabad on Campus partners, was an easy sell, says Lew.
“All we had to do was advertise it and students were interested. Plus, students that went last year came back and promoted the weekend.”
Last year’s delegation was “positively overwhelmed,” says the young British rabbi. “Here in England, Jewish expression is often more low-key on campus, partly because of concerns of anti-Semitism. So being able to come together with 800 proud Jewish students, and seeing how they express their Judaism, is amazing. It is definitely a worthwhile investment.”
Ohio State sophomore Samantha Melendez has never attended the Shabbaton before. “It’s going to be a fabulous Shabbos,” raves Melendez, “I can’t wait to meet new people, see my friends, and get some of that energy.”
The biology major discovered Chabad during her freshman year. Ever since, she’s attended every Friday night dinner hosted by Chabad and has helped cook those meals for over 100 of her fellow students. She’s also been studying one-on-one with the campus Rebbetzin, Mrs. Sarah Deitsch. Her experiences at Chabad of OSU inspired Melendez to spend a summer) studying at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and to participate in the Bais Chana Snorkel and Study winter retreat. Many of the friends she made in those two programs will be in Brooklyn for the weekend, as will several of her former teachers.
The weekend program will feature a range of study options including classes and workshops on Jewish theology, ethics in today’s workplace, and the importance of Shabbat. The “Taste of Yeshiva” track will offer advanced study in the manner of the yeshiva study hall. Prominent campus leaders and local speakers will address the group over the course of the weekend. Adding color to the program, Jewish basketball player, Tamir Goodman, will meet with students.
In conjunction with the general Shabbaton, Chabad at Columbia University is hosting an exclusive conference for student board leaders. The conference will give students an opportunity to “share ideas with their partners from other campuses and gain empowerment to continue assisting their Chabad rabbis,” says Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Chairman of Chabad on Campus. A panel with philanthropist Mr. George Rohr and a dinner with Jewish leaders and supporters will supplement the dialogue between these up-and-coming Jewish leaders.
Lauren Rosenblatt, a sophomore at SUNY Albany, is active on her local Chabad board, as well as with her campus Hillel and College Democrats. She will attend the young leadership conference, beginning Thursday, in the hopes of meeting other students “with similar traits and values.”
Rabbi Yossy Gordon, Executive Director of Chabad on Campus, sees these meetings as an important function of the Shabbaton. “The cultural exposure and solidarity are important aspects that the students return to campus with, ready to lead their own Chabad centers,” he says.
When she was a prospective student, Rosenblatt visited the Chabad house with her father for a Shabbat dinner. She has been a regular ever since—staying after the meal for schmoozing and socializing, and learning with Rabbi Mendel Rubin. This weekend, she trusts, will be all that she’s grown to love at her local campus Chabad—and a whole lot more.
According to Lew, the Shabbaton is an invaluable experience that leaves a lasting impression. Being around so many other Jewish students from across the globe gives students a strong sense of pride, one that can be difficult to acquire at a place like Kings College. “ It is a feeling I can’t yet give them on our small campus,” says Lew.
Above all, says Melendez, “I need that atmosphere of the Shabbaton to give me inspiration to keep going.”